The Life of a Cheese Maker’s Apprentice: An Interview With Turner Reynolds

Reynolds at work brushing cheese. (Image courtesy of Nature's Harmony Farm)

Reynolds at work brushing cheese. (Image courtesy of Nature’s Harmony Farm)

My good friend Turner Reynolds recently started as a cheese maker’s apprentice at Nature’s Harmony Farm in Elberton, GA, in October of 2013. As soon as I learned of his new career path, I knew that I wanted to ask him as many questions about it as possible. After playing some serious phone tag, we decided that email might be the best way for us to talk. I was so fascinated by what he was doing that I asked him if I could share it with the readers of Little Utopia, which he has graciously allowed me to do. Here’s our conversation.

Little Utopia: What made you interested in moving to Georgia and learning how to make farmstead and artisan cheese? You were moving furniture in South Carolina for a while, right?

Turner Reynolds: Yeah, I was in Charleston, SC working in a stockroom at a furniture retailer. In 2011 I moved to Charleston hoping to get into the food business, but I didn’t have any money to take time and search for the ideal job and it’s not exactly easy to get into the culinary world in Charleston without any significant experience. I took the job at the furniture store, intending for it to be temporary, but all of a sudden it was almost 2014 and I still hadn’t made any strides [toward] getting into the kitchen.

My sister actually told me about the job opening. She had been signed up for [Nature’s Harmony Farm’s] newsletter for over a year, and when she saw an email about the nine-month apprenticeship she passed it along to me. I fought with the idea for a while, especially since I hate to move, and I was starting to feel settled in Charleston. But, when I went out to the farm for my interview, it was a no-brainer that this was my next step. I really love cheese, but I had no idea how to make it, so there was an intellectual challenge behind it too. In my mind, the worst case scenario was that I leave at the end of the nine-month apprenticeship and become a cheese buyer at Whole Foods or something. I now know I’m going to be here for a couple years, and this is going to be a huge building block in my culinary career.

What was your initial training period like? Were you only allowed to do basic tasks or did they just throw you right into the fire?

They had me start with milking twice a day at sun up and sun down, doing menial tasks in between, like shoveling cow shit and cleaning the milking parlor. Once my boss realized I was learning everything pretty quickly, he started throwing me into all sorts of things, like affinage (aging the the cheese), and I was even helping him while he was making cheese. Now, less than four months later, I make cheese twice a week and handle all the affinage. I’ve even held a cheese demonstration at a party, helping to spread our name in the Atlanta area.

Can you describe what you would do on an average work day?

I start every day walking to the dairy just before dawn (I live on the front of the property) so I can prepare the milking parlor for milking. Right now, that’s around 7 a.m., but once the time changes in the spring, it will be around 8 a.m. After milking our 18 Jersey cows, I’ll go into the cheese cave (the room where the cheese ages) and make sure, first and foremost, that the atmosphere is right. In the winter, we’re having a difficult time keeping the humidity high enough, which is optimal at 90 percent. Next I’ll tend to our soft, washed rind cheeses. Sometimes I flip them, sometimes I wash them in ripening solution. Affinage is really a case by case basis, depending on the attributes you’re trying to get out of the cheese (the more you wash the cheese, the more moist the cheese will come out, etc).

If I’m making cheese, my next step is go home, shower, and change clothes so that I don’t contaminate the cheese room with any bacteria from the farm. Cleanliness is always of highest concern when working with cheese, especially since there’s so much time for bacteria to proliferate during the aging. Making cheese takes all day, from around 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. If I don’t have to make cheese, the bulk of my time is spent in the cheese cave tending to aging cheeses and cleaning.

I think a lot of people have this very romantic notion of what working on a dairy farm (or any farm for that matter) would be like. It’s like, “Oh it would be so great to be out closer to nature and getting my hands dirty and seeing the rewards of my work,” but, in reality, it’s probably not like that at all. Or would you say, no, that’s exactly how it is?

Reynolds leads the cows to the milking parlor. (Image courtesy of Nature's Harmony Farm)

Reynolds leads the cows to the milking parlor. (Image courtesy of Nature’s Harmony Farm)

Well … yes and no. When I first started it was amazing. Working outside, moving the herd from pasture to pasture so they can graze off lush grass on rolling hills. At least three or four times a day, there were views that made me stop and take a deep breath and say, “Wow… that’s really beautiful.” But as time went on, I started to get disenchanted with the whole thing since it wasn’t new and exciting anymore. Often times I have to remind myself of how beautiful the work atmosphere is. Recently, I’ve been forcing myself to take a break from the cheese cave and step outside to get some fresh air.

If people read this and think “I’d like to go do that,” what’s one thing you might caution them about before they pack up everything and start making cheese?

There’s a ton of time stirring milk and stirring curds. At the end of the day after making cheese, you think back like, “Did I just stir for four hours?” and the answer is yes. So if you’re going to pursue a cheese making career, be ready to do a ton of deep thinking or bring an iPod for some good music and podcasts.

There’s also a ton of cleaning. It gets to be a little ridiculous at times, but every piece of equipment has to be cleaned with a great amount of scrutiny.

On the other hand, what’s great about the work that people might not realize?

You’re really seeing something from start to finish. The sun harvests the grass, the cows harvest the grass, we harvest their milk, then we turn it into cheese. Really, really good cheese. Being part of that process is going to be hard to step away from.

How many kinds of cheeses do you guys make and is each as labor intensive as the other? Are some easier to make than others?

Right now, we’re making five different types of cheese: three aged hard cheeses and two young washed rind cheeses. Our most awarded cheese is an Alpine-style cheese called Fortsonia that’s similar to gruyere, aged six months. Fortsonia is the area of town that the farm is located, so when they started making cheese here in 2010, they wanted to include the name of the area in their cheese, which is where the cheese got its name. [The other four we’re making now are] a sheep’s milk cheese called Shephard’s Peak, a cheddar called Georgia Gold, which is my personal favorite, a namesake cheese called Gaddis, and then the last cheese we make is called Bootlegger, a soft washed rind cheese that’s washed with Defiant whiskey from Blue Ridge Distilling Co. in Golden Valley, NC.

The cheddar is definitely the most interesting cheese we make, and also pretty laborious. Like any cheese we make, we start by heating the milk to 88 degrees fahrenheit. After adding cultures for flavor, and rennet for coagulation, we cut the curd to the size of peas or hazelnuts. Next we heat the curds to 102 degrees, stirring the whole time to prevent the curds from matting together. Once you’re at 102 degrees, you stir for an additional hour to let the pH drop below 6.3. We then drain the whey so that only the curds are left in the vat and let gravity knit them together, so you’re left with a big 4” high slab of curd.

Then the “cheddaring” process begins. During cheddaring, you cut the curd slab into smaller pieces and continuously flip and stack them so that whey drains out of the curd, lowering the pH. We’ll do that for about 30 minutes to an hour, then we’ll mill the curd slabs into little chunks and salt them. At that point, the curd is the ever popular “cheese curds” that everyone loves to eat, but since these are made with raw milk, it’s illegal to sell them due to food regulations. We then put the curds into molds and press them, which is the most interesting step. Most cheese operations have a pneumatic press that keeps constant, even pressure on the cheese. But my boss came up with a different style of press using a car jack, where you stack the cheese molds and press them up to the top of a door frame. The cheese is pressed tight enough when the cinder blocks on the wall start to separate, so the cheese then becomes a load-bearing point in the building [laughs]!

The cheddar just won a gold medal at the Good Food awards in San Francisco. We recently set aside a couple truckles (cylindrical wheels of cheese) of Gold so we can age them to 10 months. I just tried some the other day and oh man is it good. We’ve started increasing our cheddar production in hopes that we can set aside more truckles for further aging without disrupting our current demand.

Reynolds in the cheese cave. (Image courtesy of Nature's Harmony Farm)

Reynolds in the cheese cave. (Image courtesy of Nature’s Harmony Farm)

Are there certain cheeses that you’d like to make but can’t because of overly stringent food safety laws? Are there any laws that you boss would like to see changed?

To answer quite simply, not really. We haven’t run into any red tape that keeps us from making whatever we want to make.

How much learning/training will it take you before you could comfortably make all these cheeses without thinking about it?

That’s hard for me to know, mainly because I haven’t even tried any cheese that I’ve made on my own so far. The first cheddar we made this season was on October 22nd, so it won’t be ready until April. But I know I’ll be spending a couple years out here because there are so many things beyond cheese making to learn. I think I’ll be ready to move on once I develop my own cheese and build a market for it.

Where does most of the cheese you produce end up? Do you supply local restaurants and markets?

Most of our cheese is sold by the wheel at a wholesale rate. Many restaurants in Athens buy our cheese, which is only 45 minutes away. We just picked up an account with Kroger, who has started selling our cheese in a couple locations in the northeast Georgia area. We even sold a wheel of Fortsonia to a shop out in Oakland, CA, so we’re starting to get out our name out there.

We opened a store here on the farm around mid-November so we can start selling more cheese at a retail rate, not only because we can sell it for more money, but it’s always good to develop a relationship with the community that’s eating your product. We also sell a bunch of great small batch, artisinal products ranging from jams made with alcohol to small batch tonic.

How soon until you can start sending me free cheese? How many people have asked you this?

I get it a lot [laughs]. I hardly get free cheese myself!

______________________________________________________________________________

CharlieCharlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.

Previously from Charlie Crespo:
Viral Video of the Week: There’s Nothing Quite Like Local News
The Sochi Olympics are an Unmitigated Disaster (And the Games Have Barely Begun)
Viral Video of the Week: Epic Chess Match
How Will Super Bowl XLVIII Affect Peyton Manning’s Legacy?
Someone Please Hire Me to do This

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